A concept we have drummed into us in our screenwriting classes (and, in a more masked way, in our playwriting classes) is "mental real estate." Our esteemed instructors mean two things by it. First, they describe it as the map of cultural expectations, myths, practices, behaviors, and so on that an audience brings in to and then overlays on any production as a way of judging whether said production is real, legitimate, believable, etc. Second, applied to our own writing, it is a litmus test for "viability," i.e., to what degree does our "product" conform to the map and thus provide a rough approximation of how successfully it will "work" with an audience.
They've tarted up this "mental real estate" by talking about it as if it were an invariant or totemic part of human experience, as if history could never touch it and culture could never change it. (So very American, this desire for the end of history.) But we all really know that this "real estate" is just a bourgeoisified, capitalism'd, psychologized notion of life's meaning, centered on acquisition, ego, sentimentality, and melodrama. Our job as career dramatic writers is to reproduce (with resuscitative twists, turns, and hooks) what has worked before -- in other words, re-plough with moldboard anew the same furrowed field. (Or think of walking on a treadmill, full of the illusion of speed and progress while governed by an unforgiving stationary machine.)
Now, lest anyone call me elitist or something equally dismissive, I'll be the first to say that (re)mapping the going mental real estate can produce good work, work that grants delight, deals out frissons of tragedy, shines out glimmerings of hope, none of which should be discarded regardless of how they're produced.
But, ultimately, at least for me, reproduction is not production, and so I've come to re-survey this real estate into different domains, what I call the "starter's block" and "the McKee variations" (after Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru). The "starter's block" is my notion that what passes for the going real estate is just like the footrest against which the runner pushes off when the race begins. In other words, it's the place from which to start, not the place in which to end up. Life bursts with a ferocious variety, and to privilege a narrow slice of it as the only "real" real estate is a form of self-blinding. There are so many unvoiced narratives out there, and oddities and quiddities in such abundance that a husbanding writer will never need to manufacture a twist or a hook or a jury-rigged plot-line again -- but only if we get off our mental turf and render ourselves available and osmotic to everything we're not. Only then can we give ourselves and our audiences a new map into the "buzzing blooming confusion" that is both their birthright and their salvation as human beings.
"The McKee variations" -- well, if Robert McKee argues anything forcefully in his well-honed seminars on screenwriting, it's that any kind of writing must, at the risk of making itself irrelevant and fungoid, avail itself of the higher mental real estate of the great myths, the time-vetted story-telling genres, the strands of narrative DNA that thread themselves through our cultural chromosomes. He says this to get writers outside their confined egos and see their craft as part of a larger human effort to give form to the void and dull the edge of suffering. Know the big stories and let them sift down into the quotidian without losing their power to shock, amaze, terrify, blazon -- now that is a worthwhile challenge.
I'm not really talking here about grand rebellions or an avant garde/pomo approach or anything of the sort that operates by a kind of a grating defiance. It is more soft-toned than that. We are all subject to the mortalizing force of gravity. The only thing that will keep us carbonated and un-flattened is an art that constantly seeks, not new ways to brew comfortable anodynes, but new territories in which we can become new people. Only in this way will we be able to keep ourselves idiotically open to and amazed by the universe that is doing away with us. "Mental real estate" is a false home. It denies what really makes us human: our radical, almost imbecilic, plasticity. As Augusto Boal says, humans not only do theatre, they are theatre, capable of infinite impersonation and replication. If art ever liberates, it does so by ripping up the mental real estate and re-surveying it to fit our real needs, not the ones confected by corporations for commerce and entertainment. Our real home as existential human beings, our real turf, our terra cognita, like it or not, lies in a dangerous openness to everything that is not-us, and maintaining the frontiers of that openness come hell or high water, fire or ice.
©2003 Michael Bettencourt
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